While Russia is continuing to flex it’s muscle in the Mideast, Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov invited a few friends to celebrate his capital city, Grozny, and his own birthday on Monday. Among them were the leader of Russian-annexed Crimea, Sergei Aksyonov, and the Afghan warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum. They pushed a button that sent aloft huge jets of water—supposedly “the world’s biggest fountain”—illuminated in brilliant colors. And that might have seemed benign enough.

But there was about the scene, many viewers thought, an uneasy sense of foreboding—the kind of thing some historian of the future will use to crystallize a moment that leads to disaster, like, say, the opening of Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August, about the beginning of World War I. It starts with the spectacular royal funeral of England’s Edward VII in 1910, noting in hindsight that the event marked the sunset of one historical era and the beginning of horrible unknowns. As one participant wrote: “All the old buoys which have marked the channel of our lives have been swept away.” CONTINUE